"Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty." This line, spoken by a male prostitute in Tom Ford's A Single Man, is perhaps the most poignant and encapsulating of the entire film. The man, named Carlos, says it to George Falconer (Oscar nominee Colin Firth), an English professor at a small college in 1960s Los Angeles trying, as he says to himself in the mirror at the beginning of the movie, to "just make it through the goddamned day." His partner of the last 16 years, Jim, has died in a car crash, and George is far from over it. He drifts in and out of the present, reminded of his lover by every little thing, and spends much of the one day over which A Single Man takes place planning to join him again.
The first thing you'll notice is Firth's commanding presence, of which more later. The second is the aesthetic: first-time filmmaker Tom Ford (who wrote, directed, and produced) seems in love with his setting, and clearly took great pains to portray it just so. His visual sense lends an air of unreality to the film that matches George's mood. Events sometimes appear to be flashbacks even when they aren't, and flashbacks appear to be happening in the present. This sometimes leaves us at sea, unsure of what we're looking at, and puts us in the same boat as George.
That A Single Man is as visually arresting as it is should come as no surprise: Ford is a renowned fashion designer best known for his work with Gucci. The film looks intentionally aged, almost greyscale; every once in a while, however, the hue of a flower or a little girl's dress brightens in tandem with George's mood. When, moments later, the color fades and returns to normal, we can feel his disappointment with him as he returns to reality. It's an effective, subtle technique. Other visuals are sometimes too much. There's enough slow-motion to make Michael Bay salivate, and the movie has a tendency to look like a fashion catalogue. Everything, from the way desks are arranged to characters' clothes, seems almost too well-arranged, too unrealistically perfect. More than once, George is told he looks like hell, but he — and everyone else in the film, for that matter — looks more like a model.
What keeps A Single Man from being labeled style over substance, then, is Firth's hauntingly good performance. As the film unravels, so does his character. George floats from home to work to his friend Charly's (Julianne Moore), going through the motions all the while, until he meets Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a student of his, for a drink. What results is a sort of anti-anti-climax (see it and you'll know what I mean) that, while somewhat unsatisfying, works — if just barely. A Single Man is certainly a somber affair, steeped as it is in a sort of repressed melodrama, but it's also a beautiful film that makes us care for its lead character.